It’s only natural that, when a concert’s main set is over, there will be noise and applause and calls for more. But the outpouring of approval that greeted the Pixies as they wrapped up the first show of a two-night stand in Washington, D.C. was remarkable for a sense of palpable love and sheer gratitude that transcended the usual encore ritual.
30 years on from the release of their groundbreaking debut, Come On Pilgrim, Pixies still wave the banner for a uniquely bracing brand of alternative rock that can tickle your ear with a catchy pop melody before exploding into a raging assault that threatens to explode those same eardrums.
In a recent interview about the current Head Carrier tour, front man Black Francis, guitarist Joey Santiago, drummer Dave Lovering and bassist/vocalist Paz Lenchantin discussed how they avoid predetermined set lists, preferring to let Black Francis “read the room” and signal what songs will come and when. (It’s a fascinating interview; see it here.) On this particular night (May 16), taking the stage as The Beatles’ “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)” faded, the band launched into "Gouge Away" and proceeded to deliver nearly two hours of loud-soft-LOUDER sounds that ran the gamut of their legendary catalog.
Fans of the band’s arguably best release, 1989’s Doolittle, won the jackpot this night, with more than half of that album’s tracks making the cut, among them “Wave of Mutilation,” “Debaser,” “Hey" and (would they dare to leave it out?) “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” so strong it could well have been the show’s climax, but arriving mid-set like a starting gun of a race to the finale. More recent Pixies releases like Indie Cindy (a 2014 compilation of previously issued EPs) and last year’s Head Carrier haven’t been embraced as warmly by critics (it’s hard to change the world twice in one career), but the newer material fit in seamlessly with the older.
The lighting – blasted from a stationary five-panel construction-style grid that gently encompassed the band – echoed the music. It was intense, and dynamic, varying from solid blocks of rich color to sweeping streaks. Stage patter was non-existent, except for a quick greeting from Black Francis after the first handful of songs. But the communication was intuitive. Even in the upper balcony, much of the crowd stood for most of the show, no longer young head-bangers, but People of a Certain Age grateful to lose themselves in an overwhelming (in the best way) sensory experience of sound and vision that wiped out worries about car and mortgage payments and the general malaise of being sentient beings in modern Washington, D.C.
When the main set ended, after the band members nodded and waved and exchanged affectionate gestures with the audience, the effects smoke that had gently crept across the stage during “Caribou” returned in huge, billowing clouds that obscured everything on stage. As it slowly cleared, Lenchantin led the band in the appropriate-titled “Into the White” and the evening ended with that joyous outpouring of all the goodwill the band has accrued over three decades of musical inspiration.
Hey, Pixies, the crowd seemed to say. Thanks for a cathartic release. Thanks for making us feel young again. Thanks for still being here.